Swans | Michael Gira | InterviewMichael Gira only got three hours of sleep last night and he's a bit cranky. But what else would you expect from a singer who writes lyrics like "Now I just want to thank you for going insane/ Every second that you suffer is a loss that I gain"? Over the past 13 years, songwriters Michael Gira and Jarboe, along with a rotating cast of backup musicians, have released albums under the name the Swans. At first the sound was a mixture of found noises and overpowering, bottom-heavy distortion. If punk seemed angry, the Swans were seething.
In the mid-'80s, Gira and Jarboe started a band called The World of Skin to explore atmosphere and subtlety.
"At first, The World of Skin was a way for Jarboe and me to keep busy and keep recording in between Swans records. We did things that we could do with just the two of us," explains Gira.
The songs on those albums featured 12-string guitar, and the influence of medieval music began to creep in.
"I like madrigals and ballads, as well as Gregorian chant and Tibetan music," says Gira.
More recent Swans albums like The Burning World have shown the group being more influenced heavily by Gira and Jarboe's side projects.
Gira hates that particular album because the label he was with at the time, Uni (a division of MCA), forced him to let Bill Laswell co-produce. Normally, Gira produces the records by himself. Now he says the experience with that label probably ruined his career.
"It left me hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and the company never released the album we made," explains Gira.
Could he imagine the Swans as popular as Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor - one of many artists that have taken the influence of the Swans and capitalized on it?
"Sure I could - of course it seems rather unlikely."
Because God is rather unjust and hateful," says Gira with little humor.
The lyricist shies away from discussing the brutality and violence in his songs.
"The words are what they are," he notes.
Does such a morbid fellow have any heroes?
He laughs and responds, "the Dalai Lama and Hunter S. Thompson."
If the experience with Uni ruined the Swans career, it didn't take away Gira and Jarboe's ability to write dark, intriguing songs. Their new album, The Great Annihilator (Invisible), finds the band mixing several different periods of the Swans into one album - some songs feature found noise, several have full-on distortion and others very little at all.
Gira and Jarboe have also just released solo albums, Drainland and Sacrificial Cake, respectively (distributed through Alternative Tentacles). Each was recorded on eight-track machines.
"For my album, I used one mic and one reverb," explains Gira. "It was recorded in Bill Rieflin's living room and we ran up against limitations. I liked running up against such limitations," says the songwriter.
The sound of Drainland is a little more experimental and less dramatic than the Swans. On tour, the band plays selections from the solo albums, The World of Skin and the Swans.
This is one combo that could make Leonard Cohen seem like a happy-go-lucky fella. God bless 'em.